Wednesday, September 26, 2007

'The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down' or The Origins of a Culture War

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

Some distinguished historians and the famous poet Walt Whitman have said that it was only after the Civil War that the several "United" States became a single nation. I would like to believe that true but the fact is we have never been more divided. Some divisions have never healed. It has taken the most radical regime in US history to expose them and exploit them.
Strange (is it not?) that battles, martyrs, agonies, blood, even assassination, should so condense a nationality?

--Walt Whitman, as quoted by James Piereson, Lincoln and Kennedy: A Tale of Two Assassinations

This quote also found its way into Ken Burns' famous "The Civil War", where the point was made by historians Barbara Fields and Shelby Foote that from the carnage of civil war, this national crucible which claimed the lives of at least 620,000 Americans, came our nationhood, our identity as a single nation. As Fields describes the Civil War, "it is the moment that made the United States as a nation." Certainly, she points out, the US had become a nation with the ratification of the Constitution but a it remained for a Civil War the baser job of sorting it all out, making real what had been only written. That is precisely the problem. What had been written is a precious legacy left us by the founders. It is ours to lose. Making it real is the task that befalls every generation. As this administration demonstrates daily, the battle is not won. If our nationhood must be won by war, the war has only just begun.
"before the war it was said that the United States "are". Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. After the war, it was always 'the United States "is" ... as we say today without being self-conscious at all. That sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an 'is' "

Historian Shelby Foote, The Civil War, a Film by Ken Burns

This idea might well have originated with Whitman, though it finds eloquent expression in Foote. There is always the slim chance that Whitman, a man of his times, was simply in accord with a popular consensus, writing as he did of the greater "use" to which a nation had put its young men. It would have been hard at the end of that bloody conflict to say of it that all those young men had died in vain.

"Then there is a cement to the whole people, subtler, more underlying than anything written in the constitution, or courts or armies" Whitman wrote in 1879, "namely the cement of a death identified thoroughly with that people, at its head, and for its sake. Strange (is it not?) that battles, martyrs, agonies, blood, even assassination, should so condense a nationality?" I don't wish to pick a fight with a deceased poet and certainly not one who has achieved the stature of American sage. Yet, I must point out that the tragedy of "the South" is not Greek tragedy imposed by 'gods'. It is rather, an end that is found in its beginning. As Pogo said "We have met the enemy and it is us!"

Not so long ago, I might have agreed with Whitman --despite the many tragedies of reconstruction, Jim Crow, Viet Nam, the Civil Rights movement, a wave of political murders obviously designed to wipe out a nation's left wing, a radicalized youth movement, the desperate flight to suburbia in which many had found not Utopia but Stepford.

Today, we are more divided than ever. Did the Civil war, in fact, forge the nation that had been dreamt of and written down at Philadelphia? I think not! The fault lines are tragically familiar --race, class, and religion. Despite the gains made throughout the sixties, the struggle for racial equality is not won. Like the murder of JFK, the cold blooded murder of Dr. Martin Luther King had the effect of benefiting only those who most certainly wished him dead.
The great difference between Lincoln and Kennedy is that the former died at his moment of victory while the latter was killed before he was able to achieve any great success. Lincoln was assassinated at the end of a Civil War, Kennedy at the beginning of a long-running cultural war.

--James Piereson, Lincoln and Kennedy: A Tale of Two Assassinations

Since the Civil War, a "robber baron" class industrialized the nation by denying, for decades, the right of workers to organize. To this day, the rich get richer and everyone else is left behind. The enemies of science and intellectual progress have renewed their numerous assaults on learning itself. They wish to roll back the enlightenment.

The right wing has bet its future on a few cynical tactics --the big lie, character assassination, and wedge issues designed to divide and conquer. How the GOP became America's radical reactionary party is a long and winding road. Nevertheless, I am less appalled than surprised to find in the US a level of hatefulness that we dared hope had been laid to rest on the battlefields of the Civil War.

The story is not without its surprising plot twists. When the Radical Republicans ruled the South, they were despised by the same demographic segments that now embrace the likes of George W. Bush. The Great Grandfathers of Bush's most staunch southern supporters were most certainly Democrats at a time when the GOP was identified with and blamed for the horrors of reconstruction. It remained thus until the middle 1960's when Richard Nixon effected what is known as the "Southern Strategy". Simply, the GOP decided that there were more bigot votes down south than liberal/moderate votes elsewhere. The GOP battled the Democrats for the low ground and won. JFK was never forgiven for having put his own party on the right side of morality and history. Thus, from the ashes of the "Old South" rose a mean and prejudiced spirit, just as from the ashes of Watergate rose a radicalized, reactionary Republican party.

In Monroe, LA, for example, I found in the only large bookstore in town, a huge section devoted to various Civil War books. Many of them are filled with venom, disillusionment, and hate. Some of them dealt with how the South had been betrayed as Hitler believed Germany had been betrayed at the end of World War I. Across town, a stone's throw by big city standards, is the Civil War Cemetery, a more sobering reminder of tragedy. Farther afield, down the road is Vicksburg, MS, where the forces of U. S. Grant had approached from the Mississippi River only to learn that Vicksburg could not be taken by direct assault. Grant's Vicksburg seige came to symbolize the ideological stand-off as well.

It was among the disaffected descendants of the Civil War south that the GOP found manna, a strategy often falsely attributed to Kevin Phillips who was nevertheless its most articulate voice.

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats. --Kevin Phillips
It must be remembered that this "Negro vote" had been the GOP's to lose. They were, after all, the party of Lincoln. It was the "Radical Republicans" --not Lincoln --who had imposed the reconstruction that turned the South into occupied territory faring little better than Iraq. The era of "reconstruction" is best known for the terrorist organization it spawned: the Ku Klux Klan.

It would be a mistake to ascribe to the North some mythical moral superiority although it is true that the economies of 11 states making up the Confederacy were dependent upon slavery to produce and harvest the crops, most famously, cotton. Slavery, to be sure, was illegal in the north but only a handful actively opposed it. Martin Scorsese probably got it right; Lincoln was probably as despised in New York as he had been in the deep south.

Richard Nixon is remembered as much for his Southern Strategy as for Watergate, bombing Cambodia, and his involvement in the cover up of a famous burglary of Democratic Headquarters at Watergate. The Southern Strategy turned a solid Democratic South into GOP occupied territory.

Not every division in America is traced directly to the civil war, though you will find, to this day, many who will defend the institution of slavery. Others still resent the harsh reconstruction. It was Nixon's evil genius that his campaign was able to overcome the natural resentment of his party's role in "reconstructing" the South. That the Democrats would pay dearly for having done the right thing may explain the party's timidity. In better times, Democrats did not shy from confrontation. They sought it out. Nevertheless, Democrats have historically paid high prices for being or doing right. As he signed the Voting Rights Act, LBJ famously said that he was, in fact, forever ceding the South to the GOP. And so, he was.

A long story is, of necessity, made short. Nixon's legacy is that of a GOP benefiting from George Wallace's politics of hate as well as from LBJ's signature on the Voting Rights Act. The GOP would find votes wherever there was resentment or prejudice. The GOP would foment distrust when our various peoples might have put the Civil War behind them and moved forward. The GOP would wage war on labor as well as "the nattering nabobs of negativity", Spiro Agnew's code word for academics and free thinkers. The Civil War looms like a ghost upon the body politic. It was only a few years ago that, in Jaspar, Texas bigots dragged a black man at high speeds over back country roads until very nearly nothing was left of his body.

The Reconstruction period may be found at the very roots of American political, cultural and racial divisions. Reconstruction was the real war and real wars are never won on the battlefields. The military campaigns preceding reconstruction decided nothing except who had the greater arms and the industrial stamina to slug it out and endure. The issues of division are in fact still, fueling cultural and racial unrest throughout the sixties. It was always the counterpoint to the grassroots opposition to US militarism/imperialism in Viet Nam.

George Wallace was Nixon's biggest competition for southern voters unhappy with civil rights. They had mounted a movement to Impeach Earl Warren, then the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a court identified with integration and civil rights. Even today, Texas seems a liberal bastion compared to most parts of Louisiana where billboards had promised "Continued Segregation".

Southern attitudes have not changed. Like the party as a whole, it communicates with its base in code words, not wishing to tip off the greater population. Since the ascension of George W. Bush, a separate south is now talked about openly. There are websites advocating the dissolution of the United States, a separate, independent south.

The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down

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